Dip the Vegetables


Crudités — raw vegetables for dipping — are, I think, a good example of the typical American meal’s grudging inclusion of vegetables. “Well, we have all the food we actually want to eat, but it feels like we should have some vegetables. How about some, I don’t know…celery. With ranch dressing to make it tolerable.” There’s nothing exactly wrong with celery dipped in ranch dressing — actually, it’s pretty good — but the usual array of carrots, celery, maybe some broccoli, and cherry tomatoes, pre-sliced and brought home from the grocery store in its own sectioned plastic container, has some serious room to grow.

Because, really, there’s nothing about crudités that would stop them from being delicious and impressive, especially now, in the peak of summer produce (“peak peach,” I call it), when crisp summer fruits and vegetables are so good that sometimes you just want to eat them raw, or prepared as simply as possible.

Many, many cultures have their own variations on the vegetable platter; some, especially in northern climes like Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, lean heavily on pickled vegetables. In the Middle East, especially Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, and Syria, the mezze platter is an intensely laborious, complex collection of mini-dishes, from salads and stuffed vegetables to breads, cheeses, and dips.

But because American cuisine is so indebted to western European cuisine, especially that of France and Italy, our conception of the vegetable platter tends to be very French, and come with a French name: Crudités. There are basically no recipes for crudités in any classic French or Franco-American cookbook; neither Escoffier nor Julia Child saw fit to write down instructions for serving raw vegetables, though Julia was known to serve it. I do see fit, though. In this way I am better than Escoffier.

For the purposes of this column, I’m going to restrict the concept of the vegetable platter to the very simple “raw vegetables with a dip.” Partly that’s so I don’t run out of things to write about, and partly because there’s plenty to deal with right there.

The most important step in constructing a crudités platter is choosing the vegetables. Summer, especially here in the Northeast, is entirely too brief, and the seasons of individual items of produce is sometimes limited to mere weeks. Given that we’re going to be eating these items raw, unassisted by the powers of heat and acid and oil, we have no choice but to get the highest quality produce available. That means that you should never, ever make a shopping list of vegetables; the entire game here is to buy the absolute best stuff you can find that day, and eat it as quickly as possible.

But there are also many fruits and vegetables that are not, in my opinion, really suitable for crudités. This is a dipping dish, so we have to think of structural integrity: we will be looking for produce that can stand up to being dragged through a thick dip without breaking. Tomatoes are wholly unsuitable for crudités. Members of the cucurbit family (including cucumbers, melons, squash, and gourds) must be chosen exceedingly carefully; many are too delicate.

My favorites are tougher vegetables and fruits. Carrots are perfect. Radishes. Green beans. Sugar snap peas. Mild sweet peppers like bells (which I do not really like in any other context). Jicama. Fennel. Root vegetables like kohlrabi, turnips, and raw beets (opt for golden or chioggia/candy cane, so they won’t bleed into your dip). Cauliflower is nice. And some of the best, oddly, are leaves, provided they have a thick backbone: romaine, endive, radicchio.

Some vegetables are suitable only in very few forms. I don’t much like raw broccoli; I find the florets kind of dry and crumbly. But broccoli stalks are perfect for this. Summer squash is fantastic raw, but there are only a few kinds that are really dippable. Opt for either baby versions that can be eaten whole (they’re a little less fragile whole than cut up) or the tougher gourd-like varieties, which are usually ridged. Cucumbers, same thing: If you can find really small ones that can be eaten whole, great. The problem with cucumbers is that the insides, where the seeds are, are very watery and tend to fall apart. But some varieties have minimal seeds and work well for this. If you can find an Armenian (ridged, curved, weird-looking) or Persian (small, slender, cute) cucumber, grab it.

As far as preparation, you want to make it as easy as possible to dip, which means, frankly, you want something that’s shaped vaguely like a french fry. That’s easy to do for green beans, sugar snap peas, and carrots, which are already kind of shaped the right way. Peppers are pretty easy, too — just slice into narrow strips. For radishes, try to get oblong varieties like French breakfast radishes, which you can either serve whole or, if they seem too big, slice in half length-wise, right through the root. Other root vegetables will take more preparation. Jicama needs to be peeled, and kohlrabi does too, sometimes (though it may not, given that we’re eating them in the summer when the plants are young and tender). Otherwise you want to slice into thick slices, and then laterally into french-fry-like batons.

Storage is another element that people tend to take for granted. Ideally, your crudités should be purchased, prepared, and served within no more than a few hours. Certainly they should not be cut and left overnight; this will cause them to wilt, which will make them both less tasty and harder to dip. If you have to store them, use a ziploc bag with a lightly damp paper towel inside, and press as much of the air as possible out of the bag before sealing it. They’ll last for a good half day like that, maybe even as long as a day.

The other important element for crudités is, obviously, the dip. French crudités are sometimes served with a vinaigrette, which I like in theory but not in practice, because I am a tremendously sloppy eater and it is, like, really hard to get olive oil stains out of clothes. I like thick dips for crudités, because they stick to the vegetable and can be safely transported from dip container to mouth. There’s an infinite number of dips that fulfill this requirement, but my go-to dips are either yogurt-based or some sort of puree. Here are a couple.

Tzatziki-Type Thing

Shopping list: Greek yogurt, garlic, lemon, cucumber, olive oil, fresh herbs (dill, parsley, mint, and/or oregano)

Using a microplane, grate one small clove of garlic. Chop up a cucumber into cubes about a centimeter on each side. Chop herbs finely, and use a lot of them. In a big mixing bowl, mix one of the large containers of Fage yogurt, herbs, garlic, cucumber. Squeeze half a lemon’s worth of lemon juice in, and a few tablespoons of olive oil. Mix thoroughly and (this is very important) let sit for a few hours. If you don’t, the garlic will taste overpoweringly spicy and raw. If you don’t have a few hours, skip the garlic. Season to taste with salt and black pepper.

Yucatecan Pepita Thing

Shopping list: Pumpkin seeds, orange, lime, cherry tomatoes, garlic, jalapeno or serrano, scallions, cilantro

In a dry cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, throw in ten cherry tomatoes, a few cloves of garlic (separated but not peeled; you want each individual clove to still be in its papery husk), a scallion (chopped into inch-long pieces), and a chile pepper to taste (I usually use about half a jalapeno or a whole serrano). Turn occasionally until each item is a little charred and soft — the tomatoes, scallions, and pepper will be done fairly quickly, the garlic may take fifteen minutes — and remove when done. Peel garlic and toss, along with pepper and tomatoes, into a food processor.

In the same skillet, throw in about a cup of pumpkin seeds and let toast, tossing occasionally, until fragrant and a little bit browned, which will take about five minutes. Toss those in the food processor as well, and add a squeeze of orange, a squeeze of lime, and a lot of cilantro. Blend thoroughly and season to taste with salt and pepper. It may need more lime.

Quick Hummus

Shopping list: Can of chickpeas, lemon, olive oil, garlic, parsley

Drain can of chickpeas. With a microplane, finely grate one small clove of garlic. Throw chickpeas, garlic, and chopped parsley into food processor; add a couple glugs of olive oil and a lot of lemon juice, probably a whole lemon. Blend, adding water as needed to smooth things out. Chill immediately.

A really good platter of crudités is one of my favorite party tricks; it’s something everyone is familiar with and nobody is really scared of, but if you put in a little bit of extra work in selecting your vegetables and making a nice dip, it’s something people will keep going back to. It also happens to be my favorite thing to bring to a park picnic: a ziploc bag of vegetables, a container of dip, and you have one of the best ways to taste the real freshness of summer produce.

Photo by krista